Call it sticking to tradition, or political shenanigans, but the nonsensical and yet unshakable practice of asking permission from the governor to sign off on so-called “temporary” sales tax increases has got to stop.
For that to happen, though, state legislators will need to let go of whatever political leverage the current process of reissuing these “temporary” taxes offers.
As News Albany bureau chief Tom Precious recently reported, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed measures that extended or increased local sales tax levies in nearly two dozen counties around the state. But even he didn’t want to have to do it.
That is not to say the governor doesn’t sympathize with the local fiscal issues surrounding the need for sales tax extensions or even increases. He just doesn’t think he should be the one making that decision. And he is absolutely right.
This ritual biennial stroke of the pen that allows counties to collect hundreds of millions of dollars from local taxpayers should be in the hands of local elected leaders. Instead, whoever is sitting in the governor’s chair has to make the final decisions.
The law requires that any county seeking to raise its sales tax higher than 3 percent must obtain local lawmakers’ approval, and then go to Albany for approval by the State Legislature. Just four counties – Saratoga, Warren, Washington and Westchester – remain at the 3 percent level. Combined with the state’s 4 percent levy, the total sales tax is brought to an enviable 7 percent.
But most counties claim to have fiscal issues that their leaders argue necessitate a higher sales tax. Folks in Erie County who, along with Oneida, hold the record for the state’s highest total rate at 8.75 percent, have heard an earful on those “issues.”
Still, it makes little sense to have to send a request up the political chain of command and over to Albany, which is geographically disconnected to the day-to-day dealings of every municipality.
There are exceptions. A politician running for office may be interested in using the tax bills against his opponent. Similarly, a state lawmaker can put pressure on county executives or local lawmakers for something he wants in return.
That’s the game and most seem comfortable with it, except for the past four governors, who have wanted to change the process. Cuomo came up with a good idea and tried and failed this year in his budget to get approval for a rule that would make permanent all the current local sales tax levels, if county lawmakers approve them every two years.
Call it what it is: a “permanent” sales tax. Lawmakers – state and local – need to stop trying to trick voters into thinking this “temporary” sales tax extension is ever going to go away.
The current system does create a check-and-balance situation but it is still ridiculous and, compounding the problem, the extension often doesn’t get passed by the Legislature until the eleventh hour, making for sleepless nights for local officials.
Change the process so it makes more sense to voters, instead of having the state’s governors waste time on ceremonial bill signing.